Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Whistleblowing in Germany

The German research council DFG gave their yearly press conference on July 4, 2013. Among other topics, they also presented the 17th recommendation for good scientific practice, on whistleblowing. Since it is not yet available in English, I've taken the liberty of translating both the recommendation and the commentary, then I have some comments. Note that this is NOT an officially accepted translation! Many thanks to Margret Popp for her excellent corrections to the translation!
Recommendation 17: Whistleblower

Academics who give specific information about a suspicion of scientific academic misconduct (so-called whistleblowers) must not experience disadvantages in their own scientific and professional careers. The ombudspersons and the institutions that investigate an accusation must be committed to instituting appropriate means for protecting them. The accusation must be lodged in good faith.


Academics who lodge an accusation about a suspicion of academic misconduct with the appropriate institution perform an essential service in the duty of academic self-control. It is not the whistleblower who voices reasonable suspicion who does a disservice to science, scholarship, and the institution, but the scientist or scholar who commits academic misconduct. For this reason, a whistleblower's accusation must not result in disadvantages for their own  scholarly, academic, and professional careers. In particular, junior academics must not experience setbacks and obstacles during their education, the preparation of their final theses and dissertations as the result of voicing an accusation. This is applies in particular to their working conditions, as well as to possible contract extensions.

The accusations by the whistleblower must be made in good faith. Accusations must not be made without due diligence and without sufficient knowledge of the facts. A frivolous handling of accusations of academic misconduct, even more so for intentional false accusations, can itself be considered a form of academic misconduct. The body that receives an accusation made anonymously must weigh whether to examine the case. In general, a practical investigation needs the name of the whistleblower. The name of the whistleblower is to be kept confidential. Revealing the name to the accused person may be necessary in particular cases however, if the accused is otherwise unable to defend him- or herself. All participants must keep accusations confidential.

The confidentiality is for the protection of the whistleblower as well as the person accused. Before the investigation of an accusation of possible academic misconduct has been completed, it is imperative to avoid rushing to a judgment of the situation (see Recommendation 8, p. 15). It amounts to a breach of the  confidentiality of the process when the whistleblower publicly states a suspicion of academic misconduct without first informing the appropriate university or research institution. The investigating body must decide on a case-by-case basis how to proceed if the confidentiality has been breached. It is not acceptable for a premature publication of a case by the whistleblower to result in a loss of reputation for the accused person.
Not only the person accused of misconduct is in need of protection through the institutions, but also the whistleblower. Ombudspersons and the investigating bodies must provide this protection by appropriate means. Even in the case of unproven academic misconduct, the whistleblower must be protected, if the accusations were not apparently untenable. 

There has been a lot of commentary in German in the past days on the Internet (for German politicians: Neuland,  a virgin territory) and in the media.  Among them:
  • 28 June: Benjamin Lahusen, legal scholar, in his blog, "Gute wissenschaftliche Praxis"
  • 28 June: Sandro Wiggerich, legal scholar, in his blog, "Vertraulichkeit des Plagiats – Die HRK will weniger Öffentlichkeit"
  • 2 July ff: Forum bei VroniPlag Wiki
  • 4 Juli: Oliver Trenkamp in Spiegel Online, "Neue Regeln: Unis sollen anonyme Plagiatsjäger ignorieren"
    5 July: Laborjournal, "Don’t Shoot The Messenger" details a case in which a university did not get active until a case was published
  • 8 July: Peter Strohschneider, president of the DFG in Deutschlandradio Kultur, "Whistleblowing an Hochschulen nicht missbrauchen", including the statement "Sie können selbstverständlich in allen anderen Kanälen der wissenschaftlichen Kommunikation, anonym oder nicht anonym, und außerhalb des Schutzes von Vertraulichkeit Vorwürfe wissenschaftlichen Fehlverhaltens erheben, wenn Sie dafür denn Gründe haben." ("you can, of course, state accusations of scientific misconduct in all other channels of scientific communiation, anonymous or non-anonymous and outside the protection offered by confidentiality" -- translation dww).
  • 8 July: Stefan Hessbrüggen, a historian of philosophy and organizer of a petition about whistleblowing, in his blog, "Die DFG und die Whistleblower, oder: Mein Versuch, eine Empfehlung zu verstehen" and on SWR2, "Ein Maulkorberlaß?"
  • 8 July: Raphael Wimmer, computer scientist, in his blog "DFG-Empfehlung Nr. 17 – eine Analyse und ein Vorschlag"
  • 8 July: Blog "Erbloggtes", "Obmann Schummerlos Reise ins Neuland"
  • 8 July: Hermann Horstkotte in LTO Online: "HRK will anonyme Plagiatsjäger zurückdrängen"
I've probably missed half of the rest of the commentary, as I was traveling. Do drop more links in the comments area if you find them. Now for my comments:
  1. First off, I am very glad that science leadership in Germany is beginning to discuss whistleblowing. However, it would have been better if this had begun two years ago, but better late than never. It is problematic, however, that there are some confusing points in this recommendation.
  2. I am not really clear on what exactly a whistleblower is. Is this just someone who submits a case to a university ombud? Is it a scientist who points out errors in another scientist's paper in a learned journal? Is VroniPlag Wiki meant?
  3. Because of the complicated structure of German universities and research institutions they write "the body that receives an accusation". This is now so unspecific, that many officials could be meant. If I inform a university president (non-anonymously!) about a case now on the home page of VroniPlag Wiki, is the president now the "body"? At many universities it is not trivial to find the ombud for good scientific practice. I usually give up after about five minutes of searching and just write the president or rector. And now this body decides if an "anonymous" accusation will be followed up or not? How long do they have to decide?
  4. Why is the name of the whistleblower important for a substantiated (i. e. fact-based) accusation necessary? A sneaking suspicion is that this is only a problem for people for whom the Internet is, indeed, Neuland. Sure, a written anonymous accusation can't be questioned. But it is trivial to set up a John Smith email account and monitor it for questions. If this is just a technical problem, that needs to be stated. If there are other reasons, they need to be stated as well. 
  5. There is a contradiction about the confidentiality of the name of the whistleblower. First, it is to be kept confidential. Then, the name CAN be released if the accused feels that they can't defend themselves any other way. I'm sure all so accused need the name so that they can defend themselves. This must be made clear from the very beginning, whether confidentiality can be guaranteed. And anyway, universities don't have a good track record at keeping things secret.
  6. If I first write the university and then publish in my blog, I'll be keeping to the letter of this recommendation, won't I? Also if I inform the university and someone else informs the press, that's okay, too? In a collaborative setting there are more than one person involved in documenting scientific misconduct.
  7. If I look closely at this and Peter Strohschneider's comments, it becomes clear to me that VroniPlag Wiki is not affected by this. VPW is not an ombud. It is an additional venue. VPW is one possibility for documenting one particular type of scientific misconduct, plagiarism. At VPW, facts (text portions in published works) are documented; if there are sufficient grounds for publication, a name is named; the universities are informed (non-anonymously) as a courtesy by some of the contributors. If a university says: "case closed" without detailing why the documented text parallels are not plagiarism, it is perfectly acceptable to ask back: why?
I do hope the discussion continues. I found it unfortunate that the wording for this recommendation was prepared behind closed doors. Perhaps it can be made clearer in the near future.

You can still sign the petition, over 1100 signatories at the time of publishing this blog.


  1. Thank you! I totally agree with your analysis.

    Regarding (6): While you are formally not in conflict with the DFG recommendations, the Ombudsman for the Sciences has made it clear last year that confidentiality is required during and forever after the ombuds process [1].
    At least to me it is not clear whether the new DFG recommendations supersede this view, and whether the Ombudsman's view has any relevance for a university's investigation.

    [1] http://www.ombudsman-fuer-die-wissenschaft.de/fileadmin/Ombudsman/Dokumente/Downloads/Berichte/Jahresbericht_2011_Ombudsman.pdf

  2. More documentation: there's an interesting discussion at Klaus Graf's Archivalia-Blog concerning the legal ramifications of the new recommendations: http://archiv.twoday.net/stories/444866075/ It refers to the Strohschneider interview.

    Your point 2: according to the Strohschneider interview (for your convenience: http://www.dradio.de/dkultur/sendungen/thema/2170176/), a 'whistle blower' is the person that turns to an ombudsperson in order to address a grievance that cannot be solved by other means.

    Your point 3: the position of ombudspersons in the university should be strengthened (p. 4 of the DFG-'Ergänzungen').

    Your point 4: there was much noise in the media because of a strange statement of Ms. Dzwonnek, the DFG secretary. In fact, anonymous submissions to an ombudsperson remain possible, I read the DFG position as saying that they must be exceptionally well argued (i. e. there must be some reason to overcome the presumption that anonymity is not desirable).

    Your point 5: "This must be made clear from the very beginning, whether confidentiality can be guaranteed." That is a point that I do not really understand, too: the kind of proof required should be clear from what the 'whistle blower' submits to the ombudsperson. So it should be possible in principle to estimate in the beginning of the proceedings whether confidentiality is guaranteed.

    But I have some more fundamental reservations even in the light of Prof. Strohschneider's clarifications. Apparently, the work of the ombudsperson and the commission is modeled as some sort of conflict resolution or mediation. In such a model, both sides agree to set their differences aside and come to a conclusion that is, in the end, acceptable to both sides. This may be acceptable for cases of mobbing, misuse of hierarchical power etc. Here, an internal investigation, some sort of face-saving for both sides etc. is totally acceptable. But if you investigate what I would call 'hardcore academic misconduct' that touches on the validity of results that have been communicated in public there is a third party that currently has no seat at the table, namely the scientific community. As you said rightly, there is no lack of institutions within a German university. So why is there an institution that has a strange double function, namely internal conflict resolution *and* investigation of academic misconduct as a service to the scientific community as a whole?

  3. Another blog comment from Ulrich Herb, 4 July, http://www.scinoptica.com/pages/topics/whistleblowing-die-wissenschaft.php "Whistleblowing & die Wissenschaft"

  4. Nature comments and demands punishment for whistle blowers when allegations cannot be confirmed: http://www.nature.com/news/in-the-dark-1.13347